February 17, 2011


Bach: St. Matthew Passion. Rogers Covey-Crump, Evangelist; Michael George, Jesus; Emma Kirkby, soprano; Michael Chance, alto; Martyn Hill, tenor; David Thomas, bass; Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge, and Brandenburg Consort conducted by Stephen Cleobury. House of Classics. $29.99 (3 CDs + DVD).

Bach: Motets. The Bach Sinfonia conducted by Daniel Abraham. Dorian Sono Luminus. $16.99.

     Bach was first and foremost a religious composer, despite the fact that in our modern, secular age, his nonreligious music is heard far more frequently. Because the organized religion on which Bach’s sacred works depend for their maximum effectiveness no longer holds as universal sway as it did in his time, it takes truly exceptional performances of his religious works as music to restore them to their preeminent position for modern listeners. Even then, they may not have the same immediate attraction as such pieces as the Brandenburg Concertos. But readings as good as Stephen Cleobury’s of the St. Matthew Passion certainly show why this work has been so universally admired since its rediscovery in the 19th century, when Mendelssohn’s performance of parts of it returned it to prominence. Unlike 19th-century readings and ones in the 20th century that derived from them, Cleobury’s has the scale that the St. Matthew Passion would have had in Bach’s own time: a small group of soloists complemented by a small chorus and small, very transparent instrumental ensemble. The result is a work whose emotional intensity comes through very clearly – for example, when the chorus assumes the role of the crowd demanding the death of Jesus and the release of Barabbas. And this is also a performance in which the arias, commenting on and expanding the basic narrative taken from Matthew’s Gospel, are exceptionally effective, thanks to soloists who do not seem to be straining to adapt to the performance practices of Bach’s time. Instead, they sound as if they have absorbed those approaches to the music so thoroughly that their singing flows naturally, apparently effortlessly, the ornamentation clean and clear, the balance with the instruments carefully worked out, the overall effect one of emotional conviction mixed with absolute beauty in the delivery of arias and choruses alike. Of special note are tenor Martyn Hill and alto Michael Chance, both of whom bring extraordinary purity of tone and a very sure sense of style to all their arias. Rogers Covey-Crump handles the narration skillfully, and Michael George makes a sonorous, committed Jesus. Emma Kirkby and David Thomas are also very fine as soloists – and the chorus members enunciate clearly while doing an excellent job of transmitting the emotional meaning underpinning the familiar biblical story. Furthermore, this is one St. Matthew Passion that includes a bonus that really is a bonus: the DVD, which contains the entire 165-minute work, is an excellent supplement to the three-CD audio version, and is so sensitively and unintrusively directed that some listeners may actually prefer it. However, it is worth nothing that the St. Matthew Passion was never intended to be heard all at once – the first part (lasting about an hour) was designed to be performed before the Good Friday sermon, the balance afterwards. One oddity of this excellent performance, incidentally, has to do with what the package says about the version used. The CD box clearly states “1725 version,” which is an absurdity, since the first form of the work dates to 1727. The version usually heard, and the one performed here, was completed in 1746. Also, for English speakers, there is an element here that may prove irritating: the full text of the work is provided, but only in the original German. However, translations are readily available online, and the excellence of the playing and singing more than makes up for these packaging peculiarities. This is, from a performance perspective, an outstanding version of a magnificent work.

     The Bach Sinfonia’s motet performances are top-notch as well. Under the sure-handed direction of Daniel Abraham, the ensemble brings a smooth, pure tone to seven motets and two less-known supplementary pieces associated with two of the seven. The most extended work here is Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227, handled with considerable emotional sensitivity. Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225, the other extended work on the CD, is also carefully structured and convincingly delivered. The shorter works also receive exemplary treatment: Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226; Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229; Fürchte dich nicht, ich bein bei dir, BWV 228; Ich lasse dich nicht, BWV anhang 159; and Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230. Especially interesting are two supplementary tracks included after the motets themselves. One is a chorale setting associated with BWV 226 and called Du heilige Brunst, süsser Trost. The other is a second chorale verse and aria for BWV 225, entitled Die Gottesgnad’ alleine. None of these works is outstandingly familiar, although most listeners who have heard Bach motets before will have encountered at least a couple of them. There is no particular reason to hear the motets in this order, or even to listen to the CD from start to finish – except that the overall effect of Bach’s religiosity comes through particularly strongly when a disc as well sung as this one is heard from beginning to end, giving modern listeners a chance to immerse themselves in a level of religious involvement and sensibility that most people have lost today but with which the music of Bach is so thoroughly imbued that it is no exaggeration to describe it as the core value of his entire output.

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